The board table tricks of our top 10 CEOs and chairs

The board table tricks of our top 10 CEOs and chairs

Our top 10 most powerful CEOs and chairs are not a portrait of diversity.

They’re all men. They’re all white. They’re all of a similar age – with the exception of 81-year-old Rupert Murdoch – and they all share similar characteristics and backgrounds.

They also share some common themes in their leadership style, which may be revealing when it comes to what takes any man to the helm of a major organisation. There’s a little bit of modesty for most, a measured and controlled approach for some and a whole lot of give-it-to-me-now attitude for all.

But more telling than anything is how taking on yet more duties or more board positions is never an issue for these powerful types. We wonder when they actually sleep.

We’ve limited this list to individuals who are either the CEO of a major organisation or a chairperson – who can consequently also hold directorships on multiple other boards.

They are people who have proven they can, or whom we believe could, exert their power in practically any organisation, during the term of any government and across any industry. They’re industry folk heroes whose clout carries ability, connections, charm and the tenacity to get what’s needed.

They steer organisations with significant market capital and a diverse range of workers. Their decisions affect shareholders, employees, customers and suppliers. Their abilities are enhanced by their level of political sway.

But not all the obvious contenders make this list.

There are some, like the Commonwealth Bank’s freshly minted CEO Ian Narev, who are too new to rate. There are others, like Westpac’s Gail Kelly, who appear to be gearing up to leave their current positions, having spent a good majority of their careers within the one industry.

And there are others still at the behest of difficult market conditions affecting their sectors, who simply haven’t, or cannot, make the necessary changes for their organisations – particularly those in retail, like Gerry Harvey at Harvey Norman, Solomon Lew at Premier Investments and Myer’s Bernie Brooks.

Then there are those who deliver more noise than actual results by blaming their difficulties on the Gillard government while failing to find the necessary remedies for fixing their sick share price.

This is not a list of the most popular people in business. Nor is it a list of the individuals most respected by the general Australian population.

This is about using one’s position – be it as a CEO or chair – to exert power in business. And in business, as some like Alan Joyce well know, popularity is not a means to an end.

And, as already established, this list is not about diversity. There are very few women in the CEO and chair positions of the country’s largest organisations. The statistics speak for themselves: only 2.5% of ASX 200 boards have a female chair, and only 3% have a female CEO.

To have included even one woman in this list would have skewed the top ten to make corporate Australia seem far less male-dominated than it is.

So what are the tricks of the board table trade?

* Modesty helps earn respect. Your salary may or may not be deserved, but it’s more often than not considered excessive by the majority of Australians. Don’t flaunt it. Take Telstra CEO David Thodey’s example; he gets around town in a Corolla.

* Don’t expect praise internally for initiating major structural change. In fact, don’t expect to stick around at all – just look where two years of the hardline, albeit successful, approach got Mark Selway, the former CEO of Boral, who was last month suddenly hung out to try by his own board. If you must tear up the place, put out feelers to before things get nasty.

* Longevity is no key to power. Unless you’re Rupert Murdoch and the place was yours to start with, limit your tenure in the top position in any one place. There’s much a CEO or chairperson can do in three years, and a lot that can be undone in five. Move around, go overseas, and if you’re in the chair’s position, take David Gonski’s lead and get on as many boards as possible.

* Journalists are (mostly) friends, with benefits. The financial press will happily put in the calls, or report on your speaking engagements, if you’re able to regularly provide a hook. Your position provides enough clout for a headline and a continual voice in the national debate.

* Play politics, and we don’t mean metaphorically. You need direct lines into government, and the more you have, the better given you never know when one prime minister will be replaced overnight by another.

* Sleep less, work more. No price for the shareholders is ever satisfactory. No number of board responsibilities is ever enough. Ambition has no limits when power is your number one priority in business. Sleeping? Save it for retirement when sitting on boards is just a hobby.

In alphabetical order, these are the top 10 CEOs:

  • Alan Joyce, CEO, Qantas
  • David Gonski, chair, The Future Fund
  • David Thodey, CEO, Telstra
  • Elmer Funke Kupper, CEO, ASX
  • James Packer, executive chair, Consolidated Press Holdings
  • James Strong, chair, Woolworths
  • Marius Kloppers, CEO, BHP Billiton
  • Mike Smith, CEO, ANZ Banking Group
  • Richard Goyder, CEO, Wesfarmers
  • Rupert Murdoch, chair, News International

This article first appeared on The Power Index.


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